It is rare that we pick up a camera and are impressed with it before we've even fired it up, but that's exactly the impression we got when handling Olympus' latest advanced digital camera, the SP-550UZ. There's a sense of superior craftsmanship with its sturdy and stylish silver plastic and rubber grip pads, and despite a few image quality issues during our tests, rest assured this model's 18x zoom and brilliant design are sure to satisfy many users.
- 18x optical zoom, Great design, Low chromatic aberration, ISO 5000
- Pictures a little soft, Colour could use some improvement, Regular burst mode sluggish
The Olympus SP-550UZ is a great camera that will suit people after a little more zoom in their life. The images could have used some minor improvements, but the huge zoom and fantastic design make this a worthwhile choice for some buyers.
Price$ 799.00 (AUD)
With its 7.1 megapixel sensor, the SP-550UZ captured some reasonable but not outstanding shots. In our Imatest sharpness test it scored 1442, which is a little below expectation, but not drastically so. Our test shots were quite crisp, although there was a little colour fringing (a blurring effect) in some areas and a slightly soft look when viewed at high magnifications.
Fortunately this was somewhat mitigated by the model's great chromatic aberration score of .75%. The first thing that was evident when we opened our test shots was that they didn't suffer from the blurring we commonly see towards the edges of most compact camera pictures, and the Imatest result confirms this. There was also minimal haloing in our chart photographs. Overall the pictures were sharp enough for small and medium enlargements, although if you are interested in making larger print-outs the soft edges will be more of an issue.
The other area where performance was mediocre was colour, where the SP-550UZ scored 10.4 in Imatest. This is slightly below what we expect from an advanced 7.1 megapixel model, as many other units score 6-8 in this test. Surprisingly the various shades of red were extremely accurate; instead it was the yellow and blue spectrums that showed a lot of error. While this result is a little worse than many other cameras, we must stress it won't be too detrimental to your pictures. Image purists will spot the difference, but novice and amateur users shouldn't have too many issues with this model's colour reproduction.
Our final image quality test is for noise and here the SP-550UZ did relatively well. Its score of .80% in Imatest at ISO 100 is around the middle of the pack, but our shots looked clean and smooth, with only miniscule speckling that wasn't problematic in the slightest.
The interesting thing came when we tested higher sensitivities. One of this camera's claims to fame is its ridiculously high ISO settings, which stretch all the way up to 5000. When we first heard about this, we scoffed at the idea of an advanced camera performing well above ISO 800, but we were pleasantly surprised by this model. The shots at ISO 1600 and 3200, while exhibiting quite a bit of clarity loss, thanks to the noise reduction algorithm, are actually partially useable. The noise is kept to a minimum and as such, at small print sizes the pictures are reasonable if you can stand a little fringing.
As stated earlier, the key selling points of this unit are going to be its killer design and the gigantic 18x optical zoom. The overall construction of the SP-550UZ is just fantastic. Our model came in a gunmetal plastic, with tough metal rims and rubber covering over all the parts you regularly grip when using the unit. It is one of the best cameras we can remember using in recent months, in terms of overall look and feel. All the controls are laid out in a simple fashion and while it is quite hefty, the SP-550UZ sits nicely in the hands.
Of course the heavy design is understandable once you factor in the gargantuan 18x optical zoom. Currently the largest zoom available on an advanced camera, this mammoth lens will enable you to get up close and personal with your targets. Keep in mind that to take full advantage of the big zoom you'll need to use a tripod. At anything much more than about 5x zoom, the basic steadiness of your hand is likely to have an impact on the quality of your shots. Image stabilisation technology is built into the unit, and this does help keep blur down, but even this isn't any match for a stuttering human hand at 15x optical zoom.
All the features you'd expect from an advanced model are present, including manual, aperture and shutter speed shooting modes, custom and preset white balance, the previously mentioned huge range of ISO sensitivities, 640 x 480 video recording and 23 scene modes. We were quite excited to try out the advertised 'high speed' shooting on this model, but it isn't as impressive as we originally believed. The basic burst mode, which operates at the camera's full resolution, barely shoots faster than a frame a second. On the other hand, there are several faster modes that can operate as quickly as six frames per second. However, these modes limit the resolution to 2048 x 1536 or 1280 x 960 depending on how fast you need to shoot. If you're not after the highest quality pictures, but are interested in speed, then these modes will be right up your alley. However, we are a little disappointed with the pace of the full resolution burst mode.
In our other speed tests, the SP-550UZ achieved mixed results. Its shutter speed of .07 of a second is about middle of the range, as is the 1.8 seconds between shots. Meanwhile due to the long lens it takes a little longer to power up, getting up and running in about 2.8 seconds.
You should also note this model runs on four AA batteries, rather than the lithium-ion units popular in modern models. It records images to xD cards, which are a little obscure in today's SD card dominated world, so keep in mind you may need to purchase some new flash memory to accompany this model if you were using a different brand in the past.
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